Like a modern-day Nathanael Greene or Edward Carrington, Andrew Waters spends his days trekking the waterways of the Carolina high country. Just like those famous military leaders, Andrew Waters does the surveying of these waterways and their tributaries for his day job; as a land and water conservationist.
During this career, Waters first learned about the “Race to the Dan” the pivotal retrograde movement in 1780 that saved Greene’s army from the pursuing British force under Lord Charles Cornwallis. Having the unique perspective from his training and an interest in the history of the time period, he had the perfect combination to pen a complete history of the “Race to the Dan.” Published by Westholme Publishing in October 2020, the title, To The End of the World, Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan fills a much needed gap in the historiography of the the American Revolution in the southern theater.
This Sunday, at 7p.m. EDT, on Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page, join us in an interview with Waters, discussing this book, Nathanael Greene’s leadership, and any questions you may have about this subject. Remember that favorite beverage and we look forward to you tuning as we welcome historian and author Andrew Waters to the next installment of the “Rev War Revelry.”
In the spring of 1778, General George Washington chose Major General Nathanael Greene to be the quartermaster general of the Continental army, replacing General Thomas Mifflin who had resigned the previous November. Greene was hesitant and wrote the quote that graces the title of this post. He was leery of giving up a field command to take a thankless job that faced a mountain of difficulties and was more administrative. From the start of his tenure in this important post, Greene brought about effective change. His never ending responsibilities included allocating resources, installing the right people into positions, and untangling contracts, transportation woes, and developing a concept, such as supply depots on potential campaign routes were vast improvements over what his predecessor accomplished.
Greene though yearned to return to an active field command and through his close connection to Washington along with his due diligence as quartermaster, he was assigned command in the southern theater. His assignment was to replace Major General Horatio Gates as the head of Continental forces after the latter’s defeat at Camden, South Carolina in August 1780. Greene’s role in this position is well-documented and outside the scope of this post. One of the decisions he made, early on in his tenure as commander, paid huge dividends and is usually relegated to a passing few lines in most histories of the southern campaigns. What Greene wrote years earlier about “quartermaster in history” the quote that gives this piece its title, holds true in this instance as well.
On December 4, 1780, Greene wrote to Edward Carrington, then on assignment scouting the rivers and topography through North Carolina and southern Virginia, offering him a new assignment; that of quartermaster general for the southern army. After finishing his surveying of the rivers and water transportation, Carrington was ordered to head toward Greene’s forces, bringing supplies that had been gathered with him as well.
This decision, to place an officer of the caliber of Edward Carrington, in that position was a wise move. One that passes largely unheralded. A decision, though, that ultimately leads to success and eventual victory. In this case the momentous “Race to the Dan” that saved Continental forces, fatigued Lord Charles Cornwallis’ British forces, and played an early role in the latter’s move toward Virginia.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Andrew Waters
Appearing this month at the Journal of the American Revolution (JAR) is an article I wrote on William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham and his infamous raid known as the “Bloody Scout.” The article attempts to provide a single-source narrative of the Bloody Scout and some of the contexts for it, although it is based on a previous article I wrote (though never published) that attempted to explore more deeply its sociological implications.
Anyone who comes to western South Carolina and has any interest in the American Revolution will soon encounter Bloody Bill. As I attempted to explain over at JAR, “without veering too deeply into sociological speculations, I can only say that his (Cunningham’s) presence is still palpable here, embedded in the cultural DNA. Though he may be only a curiosity in other parts of the United States, if he is known at all, in the South Carolina Upstate, it seems there will always be Bloody Bill.”
While delegates to the Second Continental Congress debated the matter of Independence in 1776, the British brought the war to Charleston, South Carolina. Defense of the city focused on Fort Sullivan, on Sullivan’s Island at the northern mouth of Charleston Harbor. Major General Henry Clinton, commanding an Army expedition against the Americans, was determined to exploit the fort’s vulnerabilities. He ultimately failed, but his effort, or lack thereof, prompted a British newspaper to craft a little ditty taunting the poor general.
Writing over thirty years after the fact, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee summed up the events of February 14, 1780 with the line, “Thus ended, on the night of the 14th of February, this long, arduous, and eventful retreat” (190). Upon hearing of General Nathanael Greene’s exploits in this movement, General George Washington wrote, “You may be assured that your Retreat before Lord Cornwallis is highly applauded by all Ranks and reflects much honor on your military Abilities.” (198).
What Lee would remember as “eventful” and Washington and fellow military ranks “highly applauded” is remembered today as the “Race to the Dan.” This retrograde movement, undertaken by Greene’s forces from South Carolina to the Dan River in southern Virginia, is sandwiched between the engagements at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781 and the British pyrrhic victory at Guilford Court House in March 1781. Yet, this retreat may be on the turning points in the southern theater that led the British, under Lord Charles Cornwallis to his eventual demise at Yorktown in October 1781.
Great historians, such as John Buchanan is his monumental work The Road to Guilford Court House have covered with broad strokes this period of time but a dedicated study was much needed in the historiography of the American Revolution. Insert Andrew Waters, writer, editor, and conservationist, whose name may be familiar from previous works such as The Quaker and the Gamecock: Nathanael Greene, Thomas Sumter, and the War for the Soul of the South. His latest book, To The End of the World, Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan, captures this important military movement while providing an expose on the leadership of Greene woven in. The title of the book is pulled from a quote by Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’s second-in-command during this campaign. With a background in land conservation with a focus on river corridors and watersheds, Waters found a connection with Greene, who studied the various waterways—or ordered subordinates—to study the various rivers, to better understand the topography for military campaigns.
After a stint in Salisbury, North Carolina, Waters became fascinated with the Race to the Dan story and decided to plunge in to understanding this period of the American Revolution. He found that “the Race to the Dan is a remarkable tale, fit for cinema or an epic novel, and not only for its accounts of four narrow escapes across its four rivers” (xv). He was drawn “to its story” (xx) and any reader of the book is the beneficiary of that discovery.
Along with weaving in the innate leadership qualities of Greene, Waters brings to light the importance of military leaders not as well-known such as William Lee Davidson, William R. Davie, and Edward Carrington with more household names of Lee, Daniel Morgan, and Otho Holland Williams. Throw in the names of Cornwallis, O’Hara, and Banastre Tarleton, and the pantheon of American Revolutionary personas is complete.
In this approximate month-long retreat, Greene saved the American Revolution in the southern theater and set in motion the events that led to the climactic victory at Yorktown. Waters, with his 2020 publication, has now helped save the story of the Race to the Dan from its unintended lapse into obscurity.
Published: 2020 (Westholme Publishing)
264 pages, including index, footnotes, images, and maps
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Sean Chick
On October 7, 1780, Britain’s attempt to regain at least part of the rebellious North American colonies was dealt a major blow at King’s Mountain. The rebels rejoiced, since it was their first major victory since 1777 and it came after the twin disasters at Charleston and Camden. Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, considered it the decisive battle of the war. Years later, Theodore Roosevelt echoed that sentiment. In 1930, when the site was set to become a national park, Herbert Hoover gave a speech. For the embattled president, it was an attempt to shore up his falling support and vindicate his strategy to peel southern states away from the Democratic Party. Hoover said “This is a place of inspiring memories. Here less than a thousand men, inspired by the urge of freedom, defeated a superior force entrenched in this strategic position. This small band of Patriots turned back a dangerous invasion well designed to separate and dismember the united Colonies.”
Hoover, understandably, never mentioned the atrocities committed. Many were executed after the battle. Nor did he mention that King’s Mountain was not a contest between redcoats and rebels, but brother against brother. The only British man present was Major Patrick Ferguson. His command was made up entirely of Loyalists. His second in command, Captain Abraham de Peyster, was from New York City.
Few groups in American history are as forgotten as the Loyalists and few were as complex. They were a varied lot, often making up the highest in colonial society, including wealthy merchants and colonial officials. They often included the very lowest in the society, such as recent immigrants, slaves, indigenous, and subsistence farmers. Their ideology was in many ways not radically different from those who rebelled. They were generally not in favor of absolute monarchy or the supremacy of Parliament but simply favored union with Britain and slow reform. A few, such as Joseph Galloway, were part of early protests against British colonial policy, but were unwilling to jump into the chasm of revolution. Some, such as South Carolina merchant David Fanning, were merely aggrieved and sought to settle scores. Others were on the margins of society and saw the colonists, or at least the revolutionary colonial elite, as their real oppressors.
The Loyalists were at first spurned by the British high command. Major General William had over 30,000 men under his command in 1776 and Loyalists would have added to the logistical strain. He also thought a soft war policy that he hoped would induce the colonies to return, and therefore it was reasonable to avoid civil war. Yet, by 1777 the British were using some Loyalist regiments. They would fight in John Burgoyne’s ill-fated drive on Albany and served as rangers at Brandywine.
Over the next few months, we will be highlighting the speakers and topic for our 2021 Symposium, Hindsight is 2020: Revisiting Misconceptions of the Revolution, taking place on May 22nd .
Today we continue with historian Vanessa Smiley who will be covering the myths and misconceptions of the Southern Campaigns during the American Revolution.
See Vanessa as she discusses an aspect of the Southern Campaign on March 7 at 7p.m. on Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook Live as part of the “Rev War Revelry” historian happy hour!
Vanessa Smiley is an historian and interpreter whose roots began at National Park Service Civil War and Rev War sites. Her Rev War park experience includes serving as the Chief of Interpretation at the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution Parks Group in South Carolina, an acting assignment as Superintendent at Guilford Courthouse NMP, and Chief of Interpretation at Morristown NHP. Vanessa is currently the Project Manager of Interpretive Media Development for the National Capital Area at Harpers Ferry Center. She received her undergraduate degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and her Master’s degree in Resource Interpretation from Stephen F. Austin State University.
Outside of her work with the NPS, Vanessa enjoys researching family histories, studying material and social culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, listening to podcasts, reading true crime, drinking craft beer, and attempting to make the perfect sangria. She and her husband live in Morgan County, West Virginia on their small farm where they run a nonprofit animal sanctuary.
She will be presenting her talk From the Bottom Up: Myths and Misconceptions of the Southern Theater at the May symposium.
Why do you believe the Southern Campaigns were so significant to the outcome of the American Revolution?
The simplest way to describe why I believe the Southern Campaigns were so significant to the War’s outcome is: it was a grassroots effort. What I mean is that while the Continental Army shouldered plenty, it was the combination of local efforts of the militia and determined civilians who turned the tide of the war when the British looked to the southern colonies, especially in the second half of the war. All one has to do is to look at two key battles, Kings Mountain and Cowpens, to see the impact of militia integrity, courage, and resolve.
Some point to the politics of Boston and New York as a driving force behind the start of the war. But the taverns and town halls of Charleston and Savannah were no less significant in adding fuel to the revolutionary fire. There is also the added dichotomy of our first true American civil war that played out in the backcountry of the Carolinas. Here were literal neighbors, brothers, cousins, and friends taking up arms to serve their respective causes and finding themselves on opposite sides. These dynamics were one driving force behind the militias that had such an impact during the Southern Campaigns.
What first attracted you to the study of early American history? What keeps you involved in the study of this history? Do you find these things are the same or different?
I give credit to my love of history to my high school history teacher, who embodied the archetype of the quintessential eccentric and genius history connoisseur striving to bring history alive. He immersed us in the history of the 18th and 19th century through first person accounts, visits to historical sites, and the dramatics of storytelling. He also armed me with the intellectual tool of piecing out the relevancy of events and people of the past, and that’s what has kept me interested in studying history for the past two decades.
While my work at historic sites for the National Park Service provided an easy outlet for my historian brain, I sought those historical connections and resources even outside of work because of that drive to understand the past. It’s a little bit different now than before though. I don’t get to be as immersed as I once was (no traipsing through cemeteries at night to feel the chill and terror of the Underground Railroad) and instead my mind goes to educating the public on the importance of our history. That’s why I’m so appreciative for Emerging Revolutionary War!
What is the biggest myth about the war in the South? How do you think it came about?
That the war was won in the north and not the south! I’ll go into more detail on this one during my presentation, but I’ll tease a little bit here. One part of the answer to the second question might lie with our public education system. In studying the state education curriculums of various states, I found that there is a stronger emphasis on the beginnings of the war than the war’s end. And so the Southern theater gets very little, if any, attention when kids study the war in school. The exception used to be in certain states like South Carolina, where the battles of Cowpens and Kings Mountain were directly referenced in the state standards. Since the standards updated in 2020, this no longer seems to be the case.
You’ll have to wait for my presentation to dive a little deeper into this myth with me!
Do you think there are common misconceptions of the era of the American Revolution among the American people? If so, what are they and have they ever affected your work?
There certainly are, and the ones that have affected my work the most center around that idea of the often-overlooked Southern Campaigns for most Americans. Ask any random person to name a Revolutionary War battle or event and the majority will name something from the northern colonies. Every now and then you get a Charleston, and if you consider Virginia part of the south, then a Yorktown for sure. But as I’m sure has become obvious already, I strive to educate about the rich history of the Rev War in the south.
Why do you think it is important for us to study the Revolutionary Era?
No matter which political, social, or economic side you’re on nowadays, we can all agree we are living in our own revolutionary time. And we find ourselves looking back to our nation’s founding for understanding and guidance, namely things like our national ideals and governmental processes. But we are a different people and a different nation than what we were then. We should not take everything from 240 years ago at face value. By studying and investigating the past, we can understand how and why decisions were made at the time. And perhaps we can extract an element, or life lesson, that can be applied to our modern times.
I believe that while history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme. By understanding the past, we may know our future.
Join us for our SECOND annual Emerging Revolutionary War Symposium. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we postponed the 2020 Symposium to May 22, 2021 with the same topics and speakers. Co hosted by Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, speakers and topics include:
Michael Harris on Misconceptions of Battle of Brandywine Vanessa Smiley on Myths of the Southern Campaigns Travis Shaw on American Loyalists John U Rees on African American Continental Soldiers Mark Maloy on myths of the Battle of Trenton
Stay tuned as we highlight our speakers and their topics in future blog posts.
UPDATE: The 2021 Symposium will now be virtual. Though conditions with the pandemic are improving, we do not believe we will be able to have the event in person by May, so we have decided to be virtual. Due to this shift, we are also dropping the price! Now the full day symposium is $40 per person and $20 for students. This allows for guests from all across the country to learn about African American soldiers, Loyalists, and Drunken Hessians. Buy your ticket today!
Did the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge help keep the British away from the southern colonies during the first half of the war?
Months before its colonies officially adopted their Declaration of Independence, the British army was reaching a critical juncture in its war strategy: with the colonies in rebellion, where should they focus their attentions? The war was picking up steam and the British were looking for a stronghold in the colonies that would gain them resources such as men and supplies. They turned their eyes south.
The general impression of the southern colonies was that they were poorer and weaker than their sister colonies in the north. They also had been receiving word of heavy Loyalist sympathies in both the backcountry of South Carolina and the coastal areas of North Carolina, where large populations of German and Scottish immigrants had settled. Indeed, by the fall of 1775, Loyalist recruitment seemed to be quite successful. One evidence of this was at the First Battle of Ninety Six in November 1775, when nearly 2,000 Loyalists met a paltry force of not quite 600 patriots. Though this first Revolutionary War battle south of New England ended in a truce, British confidence was high.
The Royal Governor of South Carolina, Lord William Campbell, had fled the colonies by September 1775, leaving the colony mostly in the hands of the Patriots. That made the ultimate goal at this point in the southern colonies to capture the wealthy and strategic port of Charleston, South Carolina. Meanwhile, the Royal Governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin, convinced British commanders to target key points along their route through his colony as they advanced on their mission. And as 1775 turned into 1776, plans were set in motion.
On January 10, Martin issued a proclamation calling on all subjects loyal to the Crown to take up arms against the rebellion in the colony. Authority was given to Loyalist leaders throughout the colony to recruit militia and gather all necessary provisions to muster in Brunswick, NC.
By mid-February, a contingent of several thousand loyalists was gathered at Cross Creek, NC, preparing to march towards their goal. Among those recruited were the famed Scotch Highlanders. Though not all joined the Loyalist cause, the Highlanders’ reputations as fierce warriors preceded the impending war in the colonies. This reputation may have stemmed from the Jacobite rebellion in the 1740s as well as British assumptions at the time that the HIghlands were a lawless land due their clan-based culture.
Loyalists weren’t the only militias stirring along the Carolina coast. Patriot militias had begun forming at the first news of Loyalists gathering as early as August 1775. In fact, some of those militias formed in Wilmington, NC became the foundation of the 1st North Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army and in February 1776, they were led by Colonel James Moore. At that time, they were joined by additional militiamen from the surrounding area, led by Alexander Lillington and Richard Caswell. Their goal was two-fold: protect Wilmington and prevent the Loyalist forces from reaching the coast.
By February 20, 1776, a clash between the British and Patriot forces was inevitable. British commander Donald MacDonald began to move his 1,600 men from Cross Creek towards his rendezvous point at Brunswick, only to find his way impeded along the Black River by Caswell’s blockade. On February 25, MacDonald had managed to get across the river and Caswell moved his 1,000 Patriots back to Moores Creek Bridge. There they set up defensive earthworks, prepped their two artillery pieces, and prepared for battle.
At 1:00 am on February 27, 1776, MacDonald’s second-in-command, Donald McLeod, led the British troops on their march towards the Patriot position. Arriving at an abandoned camp on the west side of the bridge around 5:00 am, a brief exchange of fire alerted the Loyalists to the Patriot sentries guarding the bridge, and ultimately, the Patriot forces lying in wait.
McLeod with 50 men attempted to cross the bridge and attack the Patriot defensive position, but the attempt was futile and disastrous. Heavy musket fire coupled with a barrage of two artillery units killed 30 almost immediately, including McLeod. The remaining Loyalists quickly retreated and the battle was over almost as quickly as it had begun.
So how important were these three approximate minutes of battle? This Patriot victory struck a huge blow to Loyalist recruitment in North Carolina – so much so that two months later, North Carolina’s delegates to Continental Congress were the first to vote for independence. And it created a rippling effect throughout the southern colonies, as one by one the royal governors were displaced and revolution took hold.
No longer could the British see the Carolinas as easy targets. They abandoned this initial southern strategy to focus their resources on the war in the northern colonies. For the next three years, significant battles and events that we learn about today took place, thanks in part to the dominating Patriot showing at the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Battle of Moores Creek Bridge, I strongly encourage you to visit Moores Creek National Battlefield’s website as well as their very active Facebook page. Both offer a wealth of information and additional resources for folks to explore.
In March 1781, General Charles Lord Cornwallis finally caught up with his antagonist, General Nathanael Greene and his joint Continental and militia forces in North Carolina. On March 15, 1781, the British scored a pyrrhic victory over the American forces, securing the field but losing approximately 25% of their field force in the process.
With the victory, Cornwallis was forced to retreat to the North Carolina coast, to Wilmington, where he could rest and refit. He then led his forces north and into Virginia, to his destiny at Yorktown.
Yet, the road to Guilford Court House, for both sides, started in South Carolina, across the entire breadth of North Carolina, and into the southern reaches of Virginia before returning to the Old North State. This road and the history of the campaign, along with the March 15th engagement, unfolds in a new history by Dr. John Maass, author and historian, currently at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C.
His book, The Battle of Guilford Court House, A Most Desperate Engagement will be the focus of this week’s “Rev War Revelry.” The book is now available from book retailers and online. We hope you can join us this Sunday, at 7 p.m. EST, for our next installment of a historian happy hour.
To access, just head to Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook page, go to the “Events” tab and follow the prompt at 7 p.m.
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest author Drew Gruber.
Since Arnold’s raid in January the situation for Virginians in the Spring of 1781 was deplorable and growing worse. Keeping soldiers shod and fed (besides properly armed and equipped) proved difficult. For example, Gen. Baron von Steuben noted that despite receiving 100,000 cartridges the Virginians simply lacked cartridge boxes to store them or even an adequate number of muskets to fire them. In Virginia, a colony defined by its deep waterways finding vessels to move men and supplies was also a major piece of the puzzle.
The Chesapeake Bay and navigable rivers provided quick access into the interior of Virginia and both sides vied to control them. Previous campaigns in Virginia and along the Bay highlighted why towns like Portsmouth, near the confluence of the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay could help armies control large swaths of the largest and most prosperous colony. Of course, access to vessels of a variety of sizes was necessary to ensure the control of not only Virginia but Coastal North Carolina and Maryland.
Thankfully by March 1781 Virginians had an upper hand over their adversaries not only in the number of boats but the means to outfit, repair, and support an ad-hoc navy. It was the culmination of years of effort and ingenuity which began just after Virginia declared its independence.
Alongside Virginia’s establishment of a system of public stores and the creation of a standing army a shipyard was on the short-list of priorities for the fledgling independent state. In June 1776 the Virginia Committee of Safety empowered shipbuilder John Herbert to “examine all such places upon the James River or its branches…proper and convenient for erecting ship-yards…”1 Herbert selected a bend in the Chickahominy River just a dozen miles west of Williamsburg.
The Virginia State Navy appears to have been amorphous and inconsistently armed between June 1776 and the spring of 1781. At various points it consisted of about a dozen ships, although the term ‘ship’ may be generous descriptions for some of these vessels.2 According to Charles Paulin’s Navy of the American Revolution despite Virginia leadership’s zeal to fund additional ships, marines, and infrastructure to support coastal defense, the vessels were largely undermanned and poorly armed. To our modern sensibilities and perhaps to the men and women of the Revolutionary era the names of the “armed boats” which comprised Virginia’s navy are less than inspiring. For instance, the ships Experiment and the Dolphin don’t give off an air of martial prowess but still sound better when compared to my personal favorite, the Fly.
Still, the Virginia General Assembly pushed to create and maintain a more effective naval system and in 1777 appointed James Maxwell as Superintendent. He apparently oversaw the operation at the various shipyards, rope works, foundries and all the materials and men needed to create and maintain an effective navy. Maxwell’s base of operations at the Chickahominy yard included over 150 acres of stores, barracks, and other infrastructure essential to the maintenance and creation of a vast flotilla.
Although the Chickahominy yard was ably led and with copious old growth timber at their disposal the lack of manpower persisted. Maxwell reported to Virginia’s Gov. Jefferson that in outfitting two vessels they relied on volunteers.3 In the same letter to the governor, Maxwell noted that the term of service for the crew of the Jefferson expired and he was “detaining them Against their will.” Despite setbacks and the shortage of able bodies the shipyard kept Virginia float.
The information available in the papers of Williamsburg Public Store and the Calendar of State Papers provides a snapshot into the day-to-day operations in the naval yard.4 However, a letter written in February 1781 provides the best insight into the effectiveness of the operation. Capt. Beesly Edgar Joel wrote Gov. Jefferson from Williamsburg commenting that the Dragon (a much better name) was under water rendering it, obviously, unfit for service. Within five days it was floating and on day six was sailing down the James River.5 In an era obviously devoid of pneumatic lifts this quick turnaround speaks volumes as to the facility’s capabilities despite its handicaps.
Maxwell’s operation at the Navy Yard grew slightly by March 1781 as the state prepared for what was certain to be an intense spring campaign. Maxwell reported that he had 96 guns with the majority being four pounders but lamented that his full compliment of sailors should be 590 whereas he had 78 men to staff 7 ships. Two additional ships were ready but had no crew to speak of while 4 of his operable boats had less than 10 men serving on them.6 This would have to suffice.
That same month, reports flooded into Richmond from various points near the Chesapeake Bay that British reinforcements had arrived in Portsmouth to support Arnold. Within a few short days various Virginia arsenals, warehouses, and even shipyards were being instructed to police up their men and materials and move them west out of the possible path of destruction. Virginia could not afford another disastrous raid like the one they experienced in January.
As predicted, British Gen. Phillips left Portsmouth on April 18th, with over two dozen boats and approximately 2,000 men. It happened quickly. Virginian Rodham Kenner recalled their retreat as Phillips combined force sailed west up the James River.
“the whole of our little fleet which was in this part of the Bay was driven up James River a much Superior British force, and into the Chickahominy River to what was called the Ship Yard: whilst our little fleet composed of the following Vessels to wit the Ship Dragon, the Brigg Jefferson and the Thetis a 36 gun Ship”7
The following morning, on April 19, British Col. John Simcoe landed at Burwell’s Ferry with a force of Jagers, light infantry and the Queen’s Rangers. The Ferry, located at the confluence of the James and Chickahominy rivers sat scarcely a few miles from Maxwell’s shipyard. Phillips ordered Simcoe to “beat up any party who might be in ambuscade there.”8 Finding no ambush this elite force quickly marched across the Virginia Peninsula towards Williamsburg.
A small force of Virginians, apparently under the command of Maj. Armistead briefly skirmished with Simcoe’s men as they pushed east towards Williamsburg.9 Simcoe’s men continued east along the old Yorktown road as various Virginia militia units melted away before them eventually arriving in Yorktown itself. As this was unfolding British Lt. Col. Robert Abercromby (Ambercombie) with his light infantry paddled up the Chickahominy towards the shipyard. Over a dozen flat boats, supported by perhaps as many as a dozen additional vessels turned into the mouth of the Chickahominy River from the James River – a few miles of the shipyard.
Although few primary source accounts describe the British attack on the shipyard Virginia pensioner Joseph Saunders provided the best description so far. Although he was recalling the event almost fifty years after the fact, his deposition has a surprising amount of detail.
“They sent a number of gun boats up to our shipyard to destroy what was there. I had filled my galley with naval stores to take up the River to conceal them but wind and tide being against me could not go on, came to, put a spring on my cable, and awaited their arrival. It was not long before they came in sight and as soon as near enough I discharged my cannon at them, sunk my vessel, and made my escape to shore…”10
Arnold’s report to Henry Clinton is rather vague as was Virginia’s Lt. Governor David Jameson when he wrote James Madison seven days later on April 28. “When they went into Wbg some of their Vessels with the flat Bottomed Boats moved up to Chickahominy—while there they destroyed the Ship Yard, the Thetis, the Stores &c. &c.”11 Besides untold stores, and raw and finished materials, at least two large vessels were destroyed, either at the hands of their own crew or Ambercromby’s amphibious infantrymen. Besides the limited contemporary reports from soldiers, sailors, and Virginia legislators, myriad archaeological reports highlight the effectiveness of the British raid.
The inferno of the burning yard, ships, stores, and supplies was so large that it could be seen several miles away later that evening. James Innes, commanding Virginia militia who were fleeing west towards New Kent County, recalled in his letter to Thomas Jefferson that, “They possessed themselves of the Ship Yard about 4 o’Clocke yesterday, and I am apprehensive from the fire discoverd in that Quarter last night they have totally destroyed it.”12
According to William Lowrie, the Dragon was “burnt by the British at Chickahominy Ship yard.”13 Both Lowrie and Saunders have ties to the Dragon and it must have been difficult to watch the ship which had served the cause of liberty for almost five years slip beneath the surface. In fact, The Dragon was approximately 81 feet long and roughly matches the size of a one of the two vessels still sitting in the bottom of the bottom of the Chickahominy River today.14 The second vessel which has also been surveyed in myriad cultural resource reports is substantially shorter and has been hypothesized to be either the Lewis or Safeguard.15 In fact, on March 20th 1781 Saunders was placed in command of the Lewis which he scuttled almost a month later a few yards from the wharf at the shipyard.16
Today the site of the shipyard is on private property and the underwater resources are protected by the Code of Virginia § 10.1-2214 which empowers the Virginia Marine Resources Commission with the authority to permit underwater archaeological investigations and makes recovery of underwater archaeological materials illegal without a permit. Trespassing on both land and water is unlawful which helps protect the known and unknown archaeological resources. Without stronger primary source materials like pensions, maps, and letters from soldiers and citizens artifacts become the key to understanding many Revolutionary War events like this one. Every button, nail, and cannonball when professionally recovered and systemically documented will provide us with the best chance to fully understanding how this shipyard contributed to the war for American independence.17
Maxwell’s shipyard never recovered however the Virginia State Navy has escaped wholesale destruction and would live to fight another day. As Phillip’s soldiers and sailors moved west up the James River, with the smoke from the Shipyard bellowing another naval showdown was brewing closer to Richmond.
Naval Document of the American Revolution, Page 342
Paullin, Charles O., Navy of the American Revolution. (1906). Page 413
“Capt: Jas: Maxwell to the Governor, January 1, State Ship Yard.” Calendar of Virginia State Papers. Vol. 1., Page 409.
Williamsburg Public Store records, transcribed by Katherine Egner Gruber. Unpublished.
“B. Edgar Joel to the Governor, February 9, Williamsburg.” Calendar of Virginia State Papers, Vol. 1., Page 501. A day later, after hiring a pilot the Dragon ran aground and sat on the bar for three days and returned to the ship yard.
“To Thomas Jefferson from James Maxwell, 26 April 1781,” Founders Online, national Archives, last modified November 26, 2017